The Government has set an initial target that 40% of the total requirement for soil conditioners and growing media should be met by peat alternatives by 2005, while its biodiversity action plan sets an aim of being 90% peat-free by 2010.
While soil improvers are largely peat-free, peat still accounts for the lion's share of the growing media market. Data from the last Government survey showed that peat accounted for 90% of the total volume of growing media and 63% of the combined volume of growing media and soil improvers in 2001 (ENDS Report 338, p 35 ).
The survey, undertaken by the Deputy Mayor of London and backed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Friends of the Earth, suggests little progress is being made towards these targets - although most outlets said they would meet them.
Based on a questionnaire sent to ten retailers, the survey gives scores out of 20 based on retailers' peat policies, progress in reducing peat use, use of recycled materials in their peat-free products, and whether they offer peat alternatives in their stores (see table).
Top of the pile is B&Q, Britain's largest DIY retailer. The company's peat reduction targets apply to all products in its stores, and it hopes to eliminate peat use by 2010 (ENDS Report 315, pp 33-34 ).
The other main DIY stores, Focus-Wickes and Homebase, produced reasonable scores but most supermarkets performed poorly. Asda and Safeway each scored two out of a possible 20.
"It's deeply depressing to see that the vast majority of firms haven't touched the issue in a serious way at all," said Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth. "B&Q has had a policy since 2001, and there are clear instructions from Ministers, so the path has already been set. It's simply a failure of corporate social responsibility."
Asda denied it does not take the issue seriously, claiming it takes a "responsible" attitude to reducing peat use. But while it has a peat policy it has not set any targets to reduce peat use and only sells two peat-free products. Last year, these accounted for just 2.5% of its compost sales, according to the Wildlife Trust.2 In contrast, Safeway's only peat-free product accounted for 20% of its compost sales last year.
ENDS also contacted Tesco, Britain's biggest retailer, but the company refused to comment.
Of the supermarkets, only Marks & Spencer came in for praise. Its strong peat policy includes annual targets to increase the proportion of plants it sells grown in peat-free media.
"Supermarkets could be doing a lot better," said the RSPB's Olly Watts. "Why aren't they being public about their targets - if they have them - and why aren't they labelling their peat-free products?"
Two garden centre chains, Notcutts and Wyevale, were also contacted for the survey, but did not supply data. Notcutts claims it never received the questionnaire, while Wyevale's was accidentally sent to a landscaping firm.
Notcutts was the only retailer to say it has "no" intention of becoming peat-free in the long term. "Notcutts believe in independence of mind and consumer freedom," it told the survey after its release. "Notcutts recognise that a sustainable peat-free media has not yet been developed for reliable yet cost-effective, high quality plant production."
However, the company says peat-free products make up 10% of its compost sales, while the majority of its plants are grown in media consisting of less than 50% peat.
Most peat used in Britain today comes from Eastern Europe and Ireland, though some still comes from Cumbria's Bolton Fell Moss and Solway Moss bogs, recommended as European conservation sites by English Nature. Environment groups are calling for an immediate end to peat extraction at these sites.